Alan Koppschall: You spoke to Plough in 2022, shortly after the Russian invasion. What has changed for you since then with the situation in Ukraine?
Ivan Rusyn: On the one hand, there are not a lot of changes because we are still in the middle of full-scale war. On the other hand, at the time of our last interview Russian soldiers were in close proximity to Kyiv, and now they have been pushed back from the area.
Most people can’t imagine what it’s like to live in a war-torn country during winter. Have you been able to access basic supplies such as food and fuel?
During winter the relief ministry that the church is doing became even more important. As you know, the Russian Federation is trying to destroy our power infrastructure, which is often located in the area where civilians live. As a result, people are killed and wounded, but also more than 50 percent of our power infrastructure is destroyed. In many places, including our seminary, if you have no power, you have nothing: no heating, no water, nothing. So now a lot of people, especially the elderly and those with small children, are suffering. The situation is difficult, and the humanitarian crisis is not over.
In our church, we’ve started a project called “Winterization,” to provide people with means to survive the cold months. We are delivering stoves, firewood, power generators, all kind of power banks.
You mentioned the work that you are doing with your seminary, the Ukrainian Evangelical Theological Seminary. Why do you think it’s important for a seminary to engage in relief work?
Being a Christian is about being with people and taking care of them. First of all, we want to demonstrate that our humanity is not dead. Second, we can’t be passive when our nation is suffering. Third, this is the best way we can practice our theology. We may have very deep discussions on anthropology, ecclesiology, and mission in a classroom, but our involvement and care for our society is a good confirmation of whether we have good theology.
It’s a unique opportunity to demonstrate that Jesus is among us, and that people are not alone. I am truly encouraged to see what evangelical churches are doing in our country. The ministry is absolutely outstanding. In Ukraine, twenty years ago, Baptists, Pentecostals, and other evangelicals were considered almost like a sect or a cult, but the situation now is different because our society has experienced how generous, supportive, and compassionate evangelical churches are. It’s a great testimony.
It’s been over a year since the Russian invasion. How has your faith been affected by this year?
At the beginning, of course, I was filled with questions: What is going on? Where is God? Did he leave Ukraine along with the millions of refugees or did he stay with us? Then I realized that these were the wrong questions. I started to think, why am I questioning God? These are questions that God has to ask. People, humanity, what are you doing? What’s going on? Because it was not God who was killing people in Bucha. It was other people, many of whom even consider themselves Christians.
At the moment, I am still struggling with questions: Will I follow Jesus even if he never responds positively to my prayers? And frankly speaking, my heart seems to answer, yes, I will. Because who Jesus is is more important than what he does.
Sometimes you can’t see God and you are quite sure that he’s not there. And sometimes his will is beyond our understanding. Sometimes he does things in his way and we might not like it. But I am ready to say to God: You are more important than what you do. Will I survive this war? Will my family survive? Will my seminary survive? I will follow you anyway. Somehow during this war, my relationship with God has become more real.
In your first interview with us, you told us how more people in Ukraine were looking to the churches because of the war. Is that still the case now?
Yes. Over eight million people left Ukraine, but our churches are not smaller. In Ukraine, people are coming to God in different ways than before. In many churches, when a person comes to the church we have this tradition of the sinner’s prayer, in which he publicly confesses that he accepts Jesus Christ as his savior. Now people are coming to God in different ways. These prayers aren’t taking place in churches, but in shelters and houses, when people face challenges or when they experience love and care from strangers and they cannot explain how in the world these people found and helped them.
So, our nation has a different perspective on God at this moment. I have talked with thousands of people during these twelve months of war, and I have never heard anyone curse God or say anything against God. People always say, “Praise God we are alive.” “I was praying and God saved me.” “I was praying and you came to pick me up.” Another significant moment is when people receive Bibles. Very often when we give someone the Bible, that person kisses it. And you can see that the Bible means something special. In Ukraine a new nation is being born, one that relies on God and one that is developing a culture of sympathy and generosity where almost everybody wants to do something for others.
However, the suffering is extreme and what we have gone through is very difficult. Our next phase will be one of lamentation. I am afraid of the day when war will be over and of how we will cope with the information about how many people were killed, soldiers and civilians, or about the many Ukrainian women who desperately wanted to leave Ukraine because of the war and, when they left, became involved in human trafficking. We have heard such horrible stories. When we realize what price was paid, how will our society navigate through lamentation? And how will we heal?
I don’t want to sound overly spiritual, but these are my strongest convictions. I don’t see any other institution or community besides the church that has the capacity and the responsibility to facilitate this process of healing from trauma. The churches have an extremely important role. And after we go through the difficult process of healing, maybe then we will be able to speak about forgiveness. Repentance from the other side would be helpful, of course, but I am afraid that we will have to work to release our hearts and souls from the baggage of trauma. Otherwise we will always be wounded. And it is a hard process, so we will need God’s grace and God’s gifts. But I see how crucial seminaries and churches will be in order to prepare Christians to serve in this area. The church will have a lot of work.
Do you think it’s possible to pray for your enemies? Do you pray for the Russians at all?
We pray from time to time for our enemies. An outsider might not consider some of our prayers very spiritual. Our prayer is that God will also intervene in Russia, that God will touch Putin’s heart so he will realize how cruel his actions are. He’s killing thousands; millions of people are suffering. Sometimes when we see Russian churches openly supporting Putin, we pray that God will touch their hearts so they might see what they are doing. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of opposition to the war among the churches in the Russian Federation. They are either publicly or silently supporting. I know only a few people who have a different position.
In Ukraine we have this phrase that blood is stronger than water, which means that family relationships are always stronger than any kind of external relationships. And our message to Russians is this: we are people of one blood. We are united under Christ. His blood is in us so we must trust each other.
So, it is difficult when we see that they don’t trust us, but instead trust their propaganda. I am sorry for the people of Russia because one day true information about the war will get to them. I don’t know how they will cope with all of that information, or how they will explain to themselves what happened. We are suffering now and our suffering is physical. I see that they will suffer later and they will suffer morally. And moral suffering is harder than physical suffering. So, this war raises a lot of questions about how we read the Bible and about our convictions. We pay the price for our convictions. We are not leaving the country. We serve; we help.
For us Christians who don’t live in Ukraine, who don’t live in a war-torn country like you do, what can we do in response to this war?
There are several ways you can help. Prayer is number one. Of course, every Christian says that prayer is important. However, when Kyiv was almost surrounded by the Russian Federation and from the fifteenth floor of our building, we could see how everything was smoking and on fire – the Russians were just five kilometers away from Kyiv – and then they just disappeared. It was God who protected us. Most of the Ukrainian soldiers were in the east part of Ukraine and the south part of Ukraine. In Kyiv there were only very small battalions. So, for me, God protected Kyiv. And I can see that prayers are important.
Second, your support is crucial. We are in the middle of a humanitarian crisis. And let me be as clear as I can: at the beginning of the war we had nothing to share with our people, just our lives and our energy. Now we have been able to share hundreds of tons of provisions just because faithful and generous people outside of Ukraine responded and sent food, medicine, water, and finances. So, in Ukraine we are just channels. All of those blessings from outside of Ukraine just go through us to people.
Third, share your skills and capabilities. For example, military chaplains are a new thing for our country. Many western countries have a long chaplaincy tradition but we do not have that experience. Share your competence with us. People are so traumatized: many Ukrainian veterans have lost their arms and legs; people have lost their loved ones. We need to serve our nation with trauma healing. Yes, we are developing counseling departments in our seminary, in other schools, but we need those from outside with experience in counseling to help us. We need to translate and publish books on counseling, and on leadership development as well. Sometimes it used to feel like we had a big bag of answers for questions nobody asked. But now people are asking different questions, and it’s dangerous when we try to answer without competence.
And last but not least, do advocacy on behalf of Ukraine. Raise your voice, tell your government that you care. If you have the will, tell your government that if Ukrainians are suffering, it matters to you. I said it before and I still believe it, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice somewhere is a threat for justice everywhere.” I would not be able to enjoy the sweet taste of freedom and justice in my country if I knew that my neighbor was being killed. Without global support, Ukraine will not make it. We are going through extreme suffering. And if we want to say to Russia, “Leave us alone,” our cry to the civilized world is, “Please do not leave us alone.”
Beyond everything, thank you to everybody who prayed, everybody who contributed resources. You have affected many lives in Ukraine. People have been amazed. Because of the occupation, every institution has had to leave: officials, the army, and the police. Only the church has remained, and we are able to do so because of your generosity and missional vision.
We’re certainly praying for you all there and we’ll continue to pray for you. What specifically should we pray for, for you?
Pray for me as a leader of the educational institution that we serve the church in the best way, equipping the church for this ministry. Now we are working on revising everything because we see that the situation is different. We have to equip as many Christian leaders as we can in order to make the churches capable of helping our society. And of course, we need God’s strength. The news from the frontline is not good news. We need God to strengthen us to continue this ministry.